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Joseph Smith knelt in a small upstairs bedroom in rural New York, a farm boy beseeching God to forgive him his sins. Suddenly, he would say later, a light as bright as the midday sun grew around him, and a personage draped in exquisite white robes-"a countenance truly like lightning"-addressed the seventeen-year-old by name. This spirit, Moroni, then delivered the celestial decree: "That God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues."
This "work," Smith said he was told, involved locating a book inscribed on golden plates that Moroni had buried on a mound in nearby Cumorah fourteen hundred years earlier. Contained in the leaves was an account of the aborigines of America, a lost tribe of Israel, which included "the everlasting Gospel . . . as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants." To assist Smith in translating the Egyptian-like symbols on the tablets would be two sacred seer stones, the Urim and Thummim, fastened to a breastplate and deposited with the book.
Quoting numerous biblical prophecies regarding the Second Coming of Christ to earth-"For behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven"-Moroni, Smith said, conveyed the gravity of Smith's mission. Then, the mysterious light enveloped the angel, who "ascended until he entirely disappeared." Moroni visited Smith two more times that night-for, as Smith biographer Fawn Brodie wrote, "to be authentic, celestial truth must be thrice repeated."
The visitations on that evening of September 21, 1823, were neither the first nor the last of what Smith would describe as God's direct communication with him. The tall athletic boy claimed he had received his first prophetic directive three years earlier, when, as a mere fourteen-year-old, he accidentally came upon the New Testament passage that would lead him on his religious journey. Written "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad," it read: "if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
On a crisp spring day in 1820, he had decided to test the passage
literally-to seek advice from God himself as to which of the local Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist sects he should join. In answer, "a pillar of light" surrounded him, and in that moment the charismatic teenager claimed to have become God's chosen instrument to reveal to the world that all religions were false and corrupt. Stung by the derision that greeted his excited proclamations to the public, Smith drew the inevitable martyr's comparison to one of Jesus' apostles. "I felt much like Paul," he would later write, "when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had had when he saw a light and heard a voice; still, there were but few who believed him." It would be the first of hundreds of mythical persecutions that would mark Smith's life and death, and portend a future of oppression and vengeance unlike anything America had seen.
In the intervening years between supernatural visions, Smith continued to till his father's soil while spending his "leisure leading a band of idlers in digging for buried treasure," as one account put it. Dabbling in the occult, Smith apprenticed with a man described as "a peripatetic magician, conjurer and fortuneteller," from whom he learned the era's folk concepts of crystal gazing, divining rods, seer stones, and rituals associated with treasure hunting. He advised others in their pursuits, once instructing a neighbor he could locate buried money on his property by slitting the throat of a black sheep and leading it in a circle on the land. Increasingly ridiculed as a necromancer and money digger, Smith kept details of his continuing revelations to himself, confiding only in his parents, siblings, and, by early 1827, in young Emma Hale, with whom he had eloped. All the while he patiently awaited an order from the angel Moroni that it was time to retrieve the golden book.
It was an auspicious night for communing with spirits, according to the astrological handbooks of the day. "Jews throughout the world celebrated the Feast of Trumpets, which initiates the Days of Awe," or Rosh Hashanah, academic journals later noted in an attempt to seek association between Smith and Judaism. Almanacs published near Smith's home reported the date was "both the autumnal equinox and a new moon, an excellent time to commence new projects." A publication in nearby Canandaigua reported "the moon was also in Libra, when one should 'Delve and Dig.' "
The twenty-one-year-old Smith dressed himself in black, then borrowed a black horse and sleigh for the ride to the hill of Cumorah. He had been "commanded to go on the 22d day of September 1827 at
2 o'clock," Smith's sister later wrote. Emma rode with him in the carriage, but she knelt and prayed with her back to her husband, so she never saw Moroni as Smith climbed the slope to receive the hand-delivered sacred plates from the angel. If by carelessness Smith lost control of the hallowed book, Moroni warned, he would be "cut off" as the chosen revelator. There would be swirling controversies and exaggerated fables surrounding the golden plates, Smith himself claiming he hid them in a hollow black oak tree before racing back to his family home with the magic spectacles. His mother, Lucy, could barely contain her excitement over "the two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass and the glasses set in silver bows," and though vowing secrecy could not resist the impulse to gossip roundly. "Joseph's former troubles were as nothing to what followed after he obtained possession of the plates," the nineteenth-century journalist T. B. H. Stenhouse would observe.
"No comet appeared in the sky at his coming," wrote a historian of Joseph Smith's birth into a poverty-stricken Vermont family on December 23, 1805. The third boy in a family of four children, he was named for his father, a failed ginseng merchant who vainly cultivated a rocky parcel set above the rugged White River. Joseph's mother, the former Lucy Mack, maintained a lively intellectual quest for spiritual guidance despite an unschooled mind. Bonded by their nonconforming contempt for organized religion, the parents were avid seekers of God and a church they felt to be true.
Married in 1796, at the height of the international "Treason of the Clergy" movement-the era's revulsion against clerical dominance and corruption-the couple was keenly aware of the religious skepticism sweeping the world and nation, embodied by the French philosopher Voltaire and the English writer Thomas Paine. Paine's Age of Reason challenged Christianity as "too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent to practice." The Smiths were apparently drawn into the dialogue. "As a result of Paine's work, the Bible desperately needed support," wrote Smith biographer Robert D. Anderson. "A second witness for Christ was necessary for those who needed, in a psychological sense, a future life better than this one." Finding that second witness would define the Smith family's future.
Each parent brought a clan history of a complex blending of magic and religion that would take root in the revivalism of the moment. Lucy, a descendant of Scotch clergymen, abandoned traditional Protestantism for a devotion to mysticism and miracles. Joseph Sr. had been raised by a father who "frankly gloried in his freedom from ecclesiastical tyranny," as one writer described him, and, because he was prone to fits, was called "Crook-Necked Smith." Joseph Sr. was further swayed by his great-grandfather's accusations of witchcraft against two women, which had resulted in their hanging in Salem, Massachusetts.
But by the time young Joseph Smith began navigating his own spiritual path, his parents were wallowing in more temporal matters. Living through an economic depression, the family had moved three times in Smith's first five years of life. Then, the typhoid fever epidemic of 1813 struck each of the Smith children. While all eventually recovered, the eight-year-old Joseph fought a heroic battle in his pain and suffering that would become legendary in the valleys of Vermont. As infections and angry sores spread throughout his body, he was bled, purged, and poulticed by a local physician-all to no avail. When Lucy refused to allow her son's leg to be amputated, the "barber-surgeon . . . had to content himself with chiseling out a piece of bone beneath the child's knee," according to one account of the gruesome and bloody procedure. "Great things were expected of the child whose mettle had been tested in so fearsome an ordeal," wrote one biographer, while another psychological interpreter claimed the painful episode led to a fixation on compensatory fantasies of omnipotence that would obsess Smith all his life.
Future ramifications aside, the epidemic took a toll on the family stability as Lucy sank into emotional depression while the Smiths' financial security collapsed with three years of barren harvests. In desperation, Joseph Sr. moved in 1816 to the western New York town of Palmyra, hoping to facilitate his family's escape from its bleak existence and unrelenting hunger. Called the Burned-Over District for the ubiquitous faith healers and evangelists swarming into the area-"leaving behind a people scattered and peeled, for religious enthusiasm was literally being burnt out of them"-the town of thirty-five hundred was vibrant with "convulsive revivals." Peopled by Puritan descendants of those who had burned witches two hundred years earlier, the locale served as an underground station for what one resident called "runaway Negroes" from Missouri to Canada.
Greeted by a booming economy, Joseph Sr. immediately sent word for Lucy and the children to join him. Seizing a speculative moment, he was able to borrow enough to build a log cabin on one hundred acres of unimproved land. As he cleared and planted and Lucy sold root beer and painted oilcloths, Joseph Jr. scorned the land-"he detested the plow as only a farmer's son can," wrote a historian-turning his future, instead, to buried treasure. Before long, the entire family was "digging for money for subsistence," according to some reports.
Affable and gregarious, with a devil-may-care attitude and boundless exuberance, Joseph Smith grew into a large and dynamic young man, whose exaggerative and enigmatic storytelling captivated many. A "lake-country prototype of Huckleberry Finn," biographer Carl Carmer described him, "proverbially good-natured-yet he was never known to laugh." Though his formal education was stunted, his intellect undisciplined, his perspicacity and towering ego inspired confidence. He "would have made a fine stump speaker if he had had the training," a friend later recalled.
His embellished tales were most often spun around the mystery of the Mound Builders-a thousand-year-old lost race fabled to have been slaughtered and buried on the outskirts of Palmyra. The conelike ruins there spawned theories of a highly advanced civilization exterminated by evil ancestors of the Indians indigenous to the area, and Joseph Smith Jr. was determined to write a book about the mass graves. Accepting in entirety the prevailing legend of the lost race-folklore that would later be discredited by archaeological evidence-Smith entertained his family with tales of the ancient inhabitants, every conceivable detail of their lives so elaborated his mother thought it seemed "as if he had spent his whole life with them." The theories and anecdotes he tested so effusively and successfully on his own clan would prove the germ of his forthcoming Book of Mormon.
During the winter of 1827-28, he began translating the golden plates he said he had found in September, making use of the seer stones and dictating the book to his wife. Emma dared not disturb the plates that were wrapped in linen, for Joseph had warned her of instant death if her eyes fell upon them. Though mystified by her husband's ability to interpret the characters from the plates without unwrapping them but by merely gazing into a hat that contained the Urim and Thummim, she was faithful from the start. "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents"-she wrote down his words, and the book was thus begun. Bearing a striking resemblance to the King James Bible, the book told the story of the young Hebrew prophet Nephi who had left Jerusalem in 600 b.c., sailing to America with his father, Lehi. Nephi's two older brothers, Laman and Lemuel, were evil sinners, causing God to curse them and all of their descendants with a red skin. But Nephi and his three younger brothers, Sam, Jacob, and Joseph, were devout and godly, so God blessed them and all of their descendants with white skin. Hence, the saga of the Nephites and Lamanites would be an expansion and explanation of the most common theories of the day-that the Indians of North America were a remnant of one of the mythical ten lost tribes of Israel. The Nephites were what Smith called a "white and delightsome people," while the baneful Lamanites were bloodthirsty combatants.
Emma the scribe dutifully recorded what one writer called the "stream of prose that flowed from her husband's lips"-the colorful history of these two warring factions, and the origin of the founding fathers of all Americans. "He began the book," wrote Fawn Brodie, "by focusing upon a single hero, Nephi, who like himself was peculiarly gifted of the Lord." This narrative device allowed Smith to follow the formula of the Bible's Old Testament, the prophetic writings divided into books.
Pregnant with a baby that would soon be delivered stillborn, and penniless from the devotion to the couple's joint endeavor, Emma soon sought a replacement for her position as secretary. In April 1829, a young Palmyra schoolmaster named Oliver Cowdery began taking dictation from Smith, and in just over two months the two men had miraculously completed a 275,000-word manuscript. This new adventure story was much improved in pacing and excitement, but still "lacked subtlety, wit, and style," as one critic put it. "He began the book with a first-class murder, added assassinations, and piled up battles by the score." Complex and intricate, the plot centered largely around the story of Mormon-a military figure who led his people, who populated North America, and Nephi, an early migrant from Palestine to America. Moroni, the angel who directed Smith to the tablets, was Mormon's son and the last diarist of the events.
Covering a thousand years and brimming with heroes and villains, bloodshed and miracles, army generals and covert operations, rich biblical symbols and autobiographical themes, what was to be called the Book of Mormon was reflective of the unsophisticated mystical leanings of the day. At root was the conviction that all believers were on the road to Godhood, that a heaven existed where all men could be saved and then go on to create their own worlds.
Less than a year later, the illiterate Joseph Smith published the highly commercial manuscript, creating at the same time an entirely new theology. The Book of Mormon first went on sale in Palmyra on March 26, 1830. "BLASPHEMY-BOOK OF MORMON, ALIAS THE GOLDEN BIBLE," the Rochester Daily Advertiser wrote in drawing the first imprecation.
From the Hardcover edition.